This article was originally published on December 3, 2006.
As Army coach Bobby Ross walked away from Lincoln Financial Field, just before he got to the tunnel, a man in the front row holding one end of an American flag yelled out, "Good job, Bobby Ross! Next year!"
A few minutes later, Navy coach Paul Johnson, in a room underneath the stands, said: "Honestly, I'm a little frustrated at how we played."
The most noteworthy aspect of the 107th Army-Navy game may have been that it was a game. Yesterday, after Navy took away a 26-14 victory, its fifth straight over Army, in front of 69,943, nobody disputed that the better team had won again.
This time, however, Navy (9-3) didn't just roll over the Cadets (3-9). The Midshipmen scored more points mostly because they made fewer mistakes. Army got a touchdown on its first possession, was still tied with Navy at halftime, and was within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, when the Midshipmen grabbed the first of two game-clinching interceptions.
With several of its three running options effectively taken away by Army, Navy pulled off some trickery to score the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. Quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada pitched the ball to wide receiver Jason Tomlinson, who was racing around behind him. When an Army defensive end got caught inside, Tomlinson's reverse went for a 33-yard touchdown.
"The previous play, their defensive end was chasing from behind, so I thought I would try to see if he would chase again," Johnson said.
Right after that, Army had a 15-play drive, getting to Navy's 16 before missing a 34-yard field goal. Its next two possessions ended with interceptions of freshman quarterback Carson Williams.
Navy converted the first into a 35-yard field goal and brought the second back all the way, a 40-yard touchdown by defensive back Keenan Little, giving Navy a 24-7 lead with 5 minutes, 22 seconds remaining.
All that was important because Army was making it tough for Navy to run outside.
"To make a play like that in this game is just something you always dream about," said Little, who also returned a fumble for a touchdown against Air Force. "It's one of the best feelings you can have."
Little is a senior, a member of the first Navy class to never lose to Army or Air Force.
"That's one thing we can always say about our class," Little said. "When our class came in, it seems like things just turned around for Navy. We can always symbolize ourselves as the class that helped change things around. And to go 8-0 [against Army and Air Force], it just helps to show, to go down actually in the history books, that there is something special about our class."
Both of Williams' interceptions were thrown behind his receivers, but neither was exactly as it seemed. On one, the receiver had gotten knocked down. Ross pointed out, "He can't do that. He's got to get off of that and make the play."
On the other, Ross noted, the wrong play was called, as Williams had missed the signal from the sideline.
"When you're young at a very important position, it hurts you a lot," Ross said. "We've had some problems all season turning the ball over. You can play conservative enough to try to prevent that from happening. Ultimately, if you're going to win a game, you've got to do some things to make that happen as well."
Army's coach wasn't throwing his quarterback under the bus, just stating facts.
"Here's a young freshman who's stepped in and played in three games on national television against some pretty good opponents - and hung in there," Ross said. "Everything hasn't been perfect, but it wasn't with John Elway when he started in Denver, and it wasn't with Dan Marino when he started. You just can't expect much. . . . I'm not displeased with him. He's shown some promise."
The idea that these athletes are out there playing for more than themselves is not just an abstraction. Williams got an e-mail Thursday from a captain in Iraq that said, "Go Army! Beat Navy!" The e-mail was from his father.
Navy has another game left, in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. That's another sign of success for the program. But it will never have the same ring, or the same meaning, as this one.